DUMMERSTON — For nearly 50 years, William “Bill” Holiday taught history through immersion - having students learn by reading primary sources, visiting places where some of the most important events of the 20th century took place, and talking to the people who were in the middle of it all.
The Windham Southeast School District teacher retired from classroom teaching in 2020, but is still very much an educator. His newest project is a self-published book, Beyond the Classroom, which captures his teaching methods.
The book is a combination of stories and photos of the field research Holiday and his students engaged in, along with a closing chapter he wrote to show teachers “to think beyond the daily activities within the four walls of a classroom” to give students the opportunity “to experience history firsthand rather than through textbooks.”
In today's educational environment, “there's more emphasis on using primary sources [to teach history] today than there used to be,” said Holiday. “But you're talking to a guy who hasn't used a textbook since 1973.”
Holiday is a Brattleboro native and a 1968 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School. He went to Windham College in Putney, and began his education career in the spring of 1972 as a student teacher at Guilford Central School. That fall, after graduation, he was hired by Dummerston School where he taught social studies, English, and physical education in grades 6-8. After 12 years in Dummerston, Holiday moved to BUHS to join its social studies department.
He said the textbooks he encountered when he first started teaching social studies and history were incomplete in their treatments of the subject matter. So “that put a premium on finding primary, and other sources,” he said.
“And that's what I've done,” Holiday continued. “Who better to learn history from than the people who experienced it?”
Some of the stories in the book made their first appearance over the years in the Voices section of The Commons.
In the field
The centerpiece of Holiday's approach to teaching history is what he calls “field studies.” Each year, he would meet with interested students and their parents, offer some topics, and let the students decide what they wanted to study.
The topics have ranged widely, from going to Alabama to interview the people involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to going to Dallas, Texas to study the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, to going to Northern Ireland to talk with Protestant paramilitaries and loyalist Catholics about nearly three decades of civil war and unrest there.
Holiday said that of all the field studies done with his students, the trips to Alabama and Northern Ireland stood out - in particular, the interviews with the Rev. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth, one of the principal Civil Rights leaders in Alabama, and James Bevel, who Holiday called a “master strategist” who went to Birmingham with the idea of flooding the city's jails in 1963 with young people engaged in nonviolent protest in what became known as the “Children's Crusade.”
“No one wanted to go to 'Bombingham,'” said Holiday, using the name many gave to the city that saw some of the worst violence directed towards Black people during the Civil Rights Movement. He said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Bevel to go there “because he was young and bright and had a new strategy.”
Nonviolence was key to the success of the Civil Rights Movement, and Holiday said it was also adopted by those who sought a peaceful end to the fight between the majority Protestants and the minority Catholics in the 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland.
Teaching about the era known as “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland was a new experience for both Holiday and his BUHS students. He said he took students there in 2012, 2014, and 2016 to meet some of the principal figures on both sides of the struggle, including Martin McGuinness, the Irish Republican Army leader who later became co-prime minister after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Teaching students to think on their own
Holiday was an early adopter of digital technology, starting in the late 1990s, when he began the process of converting his students to a paperless classroom. The rise of the internet brought the ability to have virtual visits with subjects who couldn't travel to Brattleboro, and expanded access to research materials.
But in the end, he said, although both students and technology may have changed, Holiday's guiding principle of education has not.
“My whole purpose in teaching social studies for 48 years was to make sure that students could think on their own,” Holiday said. “They would be exposed to as many [ideas] as varied from the left and the right as possible and decide for themselves.”
He would tell students that “at the end the course, you'll be able to make a decision - 'geez, I'm a Democrat, I'm a Republican, I'm an independent, I'm a fiscal conservative, I'm a social liberal,'” he said.
“I'm not going to make that decision for you,” Holiday would say. “That's not my job. My job is to put you in a position to make up your own mind.”